Getting permission

The last time I taught one of my gardening classes, I ran into an interesting intersection of personal change, horticulture, and pedagogy.

At the end of the sessions, the students have (optional) evaluation forms to fill out about the class and instructor. On the front is a ranking various qualities of the facility, the topic, the instructor and so on, and the back has open-ended questions about what you liked best, suggestions for improvement, other courses and what-not. These review forms are very helpful to both myself and the college.

During the last class, under the “what you liked best” section, I got a comment that I’ve never had in 15 years. Usually the positive remarks are about the handouts, the photographs, my sense of humor, and willingness to answer questions. But today one of the evaluations had minimal responses, aside from this comment:

“Permission to change things in my garden.”

Probably the prompting remark on my end was something to the effect of, “Some hostas have gorgeous, fragrant flowers, but some hostas have stupid little flowers. If you don’t like the flowers on your hostas (which are usually grown for their foliage), it’s okay to cut them off. The ‘Plant Police’ won’t come and get you.” It’s one of my advice-as-shtick bits, and usually generates a few chuckles, so they remember it better.

Sometimes in classes people ask about pruning shrubs. Now on my end, I’m less interested in the how-and-when of shrub pruning as much as why they’re asking. Usually the replies run along, “Well, it keeps growing back! And it’s under my picture window/ by the front stoop/ et cetera.”

There are a couple things going on: you can’t really change the genes of the plant (nice plant, bad location), and sometimes we inherit poorly-placed plants put in by previous owners, or the home builders. I’m sure that over 90% of home builders know nothing about landscaping, and they plant these widdle 1-gallon size shrubs around houses to make them sell well. Nevermind those Japanese Yews or Junipers are really Great Dane puppies, and then a few years down the road … well, you know how the story goes. Pruning such shrubberies is not a long-term solution; they’ll just keep growing back.

Sometimes people just have old shrubs that are half-dead and ratty. Amazingly, lots of people feel they need the “permission” of someone “official” to cut down or rip out ugly, half-dead stuff! I tell them, “Hey, if it’s dead, cut it off. If you don’t like it, rip it out!” Jeez … liberation by shovel. Go figure.

What is curious about the whole comment was not only that someone felt they needed that permission to effect a change in their existing landscaping, but that they realised they had that need, and were thankful for the opportunity.

But gardeners don’t really need my “permission” to remove ugly, half-dead or unwanted plants from their landscape. It’s their yard. They come to classes to get questions answered, and a whole bunch of information on a topic that is organised into fairly painless, digestible bites, with data to take home and review at their leisure.

It’s not just gardeners. Many people feel they need permission to make changes in their lives.

Sometimes when people make changes, they face opposition by others. It’s not just replacing grass with flowers, getting a different haircut, or switching a college major. When people make internal changes, they also change interpersonal dynamics. Even if the internal changes and the resulting interpersonal dynamics are healthier, the others who benefitted in some way from the old dynamics (however dysfunctional) are vested in keeping the status quo.

When we ask others for permission to change, sometimes we are not asking for permission so much as encouragement and reassurance that the idea is sound and that others will be supportive.

There’s a phrase one hears sometimes, “Bloom where you grow.” Like other trite homilies, it pretends to be profound, and sometimes is used to beneficial effect. It can mean, “Find imaginative and happy ways of making the best use of what you have to work with in life.” This is fine.

I’ve also heard the same trite phrase used in very negative ways. That probably sounds odd; surely I misunderstood. But no, sweet little fluffy homilies can be used to smother people just as can feather pillows. “This is what you’ve been given, and you shouldn’t hope for or ask for anything else; don’t you go getting above yourself.” Instead of a volunteer flower blooming beside the sidewalk, the person has become the target of a merciless Procrustean “turf-head” who is adamant about keeping everything shaved down to an even height.

Here the gardener can well understand the plight of the little girl in The Secret Garden:

“Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”

Of course! You may indeed have a bit of the Earth. Here is your trowel and watering can. You have all the permission you need to change things in your garden.


  1. Julian Maga said,

    4 August 2010 at 3:40

    Just wanted to say thanks for this. 7

  2. Snark said,

    31 March 2008 at 23:17

    As a lifelong student and sometime teacher, I’d say you and your student seem to have put your finger on something important: generally, the changes we might make aren’t illegal, are they? But a lot of folks are afraid of “doing it wrong.”

  3. LisaDroesdov said,

    31 March 2008 at 19:25

    I think perhaps the student’s garden has become a metaphor, as you suggested, for her life, and that she appreciates this.

    I am constantly fighting myself tooth and nail for the right to make changes in my “garden.” I always appreciate someone giving me permission.

  4. abfh said,

    31 March 2008 at 15:34

    I sometimes feel reluctant to dig out plants I don’t like, just because I feel guilty about killing them after I was responsible for putting them in a bad spot in the first place. So, if I can’t convince my mother to put them in her garden, I move them somewhere else, although they may not be the best choice for that spot either, and it can end up taking years to get rid of them.

    “Liberation by shovel” is definitely a useful motto! I have way too much angst over what to do with my plants, and it’s probably true that I also need to take more initiative in making changes to my personal life.

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